I saw on another thread a member saying, "the Constitution gives us the right to...." This statement is dead wrong, and it represents a common ignorance of our fundamental American philosophy that is a real sore spot for me. The Constitution refers to some rights, but it gives no rights to anyone. Rights are inalienable. To explain, I am posting an essay here which I wrote a while back.
Inalienable Rights and Natural Law
The idea that certain rights are inherent and inalienable to all people is called 'natural law'. It's a concept that has been defined by many writers and philosophers over the last half-millenia or so. Natural law proposes that human beings have rights that inherent to their very fundamental nature as social beings. The idea sprang from the observation that all successful human social constructs have certain common features, behaviors that define the basic social contract. This is what we might today refer to as our instictive social behaviors, sort of like a highly refined herd instinct thats hard-wired into our 'wetware', the natural basic programming we're born with that defines us as social animals. If you look at a family, a clan, a tribe, a government, you will see these basic behaviors, and the trouble caused when these behaviors are frustrated. Because these behaviors are necessary for the survival of a human social construct, we codify them as 'rights' which cannot be denied; in other words, inalienable rights. They are an integral part of our humanity, and are not dependent upon or granted by any constitution, declaration, compact or agreement. They can certainly be violated, but they cannot be logically declared nonexistent.
All of our inalienable rights derive from the right to live, obviously the most fundamental right of all. You can easily derive the right of self-defense, the right to persue a living for you and your family, the right to property to keep a roof over your head and the tools to provide for your basic needs, etc., all from the right to live. Also, there is the right to self-determination, as people that don't have the right to govern themselves are slaves and have no real rights at all. Equal protection under the law is another such right, as if there are special priveleged classes, you are diminishing those who don't enjoy those special privileges and destroying any semblance of fairness in the society, which is a severe danger to that society's stability and survival.
Early writers on the subject of natural law were living in monarchical theocracies, so although natural law is derived from logical observation and deduction, they used the device of describing inalienable rights as 'God-given' to prevent being branded heretics and atheists. The faithful still refer to inalienable rights in this context today. This didn't always work, as the church was dead-set against natural law because it denied the Divine Right of Kings to rule, and thereby threatened the very basis of the church's power. Thus, many natural law authors were persecuted by religious and government authorities. Even today, some religious people who don't understand the concept of inalienable rights and its origin insist that natural law is the basis of atheism. History show that this is false, as most natural law authors were devoutly faithful themselves.
There was no nation governed under natural law principles until America declared its independance and created the first secular government in modern history. The Founding Fathers, while most of them were devout in their faith, had the wisdom and integrity to kick both the King and the Archbishop out of the palace of governance. They in no way denied religion, they simply forever seperated religious authorities from governing or legal powers, and established the principle of freedom of worship (or to not worship at all). No more Divine Right of Kings, no more total obedience to the Monarch on pain of death, no more governmental authority supposedly derived directly from God through the state Church, no more insitutional religious persecution, and no more government tyranny. The highest authority in the land became the common citizenry, and the ruling aristocracy was deposed. It is this that made America the revolutionary new nation that is was, unlike any that came before it or any other nation of its time.
Today, Americans have little understanding of inalienable rights and none at all of natural law, most never even having heard of it. That would be utterly appalling to our Founding Fathers if they could see America today, with the people being clueless about the fundamental principles of their own nation and the legal system that defines it. Hopefully, this essay will help a little.